For modernist icon William Krisel, the last few months have been good ones. The 85-year-old architect, who has built over 40,000 housing units and countless other buildings in Southern California (most with his business partner Dan Palmer), was honored in October with both the AIA California Council’s and the AIA Los Angeles’ Lifetime Achievement Awards. On February 14, a new film about his career, William Krisel, Architect (directed by Jake Gorst), premiered at Palm Spring’s Camelot Theater as part of the city’s Modernism Week; there is also a screening April 13 at the Getty. Krisel talked to AN’s Sam Lubell about these recent accolades and his latest ventures, as well as about how today’s architects measure up to his own generation and—his biggest concern—the state of the profession.
The Architect’s Newspaper: You are known for being outspoken about the profession of architecture. Where do you think things are going now?
William Krisel: I’m 85 years old and I’ve been an architect since 1950, so I can really look back at the road that architects have traveled down and how they’ve taken the wrong forks and ended up in a ditch. My general feeling is that architects in the old days were the captains of the team. That meant that any building venture where the architect was involved, he was the captain. He picked the team, he picked the players, and he guided the team to its conclusion.
I like to think that the architect is like the composer and the conductor. We can’t have the situation that exists today, where all the various consultants are trying to do their own shtick. You have to have a common purpose, a common goal, and a common direction, and you can’t have everyone doing his own thing. When the architect is not the head of the team, all these consultants feel they want to get their part of the job the way they want it. So there is no real master concept that an architect contributes. With everyone doing his own thing, you get a mishmash.
Architects have put themselves in this position. They’re not the captains of the team, they’re often not even players and sometimes they’re not even on the bench or invited to play. And the reason this happened was that they abdicated their role as captain. Historically, whenever a void is created, somebody fills that void. Today, the self-anointed “designers” have made themselves the captain of the team. A lot of architects are finding they need to say they are an architect and designer. My feeling is the public now thinks the architect is someone who just does blueprints.
How did this happen? When did architects begin to lose their dominant role?
I would say in the late 1970s. Part of it came because of litigation and architects got scared of having too much responsibility. The truth is, the responsibility is shared with the consultants. If he recommends the consultant to the client and the client signs a separate agreement, then the architect is not liable for the consultant’s performance. The basic reason we abdicated those rules is that we said “I’m not sticking my neck out for those guys.” They didn’t know there was a way you could do both. They were given incorrect advice.
How would you fix that?
By architects proving their value and showing they can perform this role, which they used to do. The problem is they’ve given it away for such a long time that it’s going to be tough to go back. I think the AIA needs to start a publicity campaign to educate the public about the true role of the architect. It doesn’t mean other players need to disappear from the face of the earth. We need to use engineers and landscape architects. All of them play a role. But they can’t all go their own way.
The only way to do that is to put the architect at the head. That means the architect needs to educate himself in all those areas, and know enough about those fields so that he’ll know what they’re talking about and be able to take their information and his design experience and meld them together. It’s a combination of architects and consultants putting pieces together to come up with the right design.
You’ve had great success working with developers, such as with Robert Alexander on the famous Alexander Tract. How did it work? Do you have advice for today’s architects on that front?
An architect has to first show a builder that there’s value. My key is that I told them I could give them good design but do it for less than they were spending. The only way to do that was to be knowledgeable about construction and construction costs. I built things on my own. I talked to builders and tried to convince them to use me. I found out how much a chimney costs, how much a door costs, how much a corner costs.
When I was in college, I did research on that and found I liked tract housing as a challenge. It was right after World War II and Southern California was extremely fertile. There were thousands of houses being built by non-architects. I saw it as a great opportunity. Some of my friends were from builder families. I was able to convince one builder to go to his father and say we ought to try some of these. He thought we were nuts. He thought he’d teach us a lesson and gave his son ten lots and said, “Do your thing.” It was a big success and that opened the eyes of his father. This was Gordon Palms.
Once that was a success, all builders are like sheep; if the competitor is making money they say, “I want to do what he’s doing” and they came to me. At one time, of the ten largest homebuilders in the U.S., seven were my clients. I kept it going. I gave talks and slide shows, talked at building conventions. Builders all over the U.S. wanted what I did. I had to adjust the type of construction to fit the area. In Florida, I had to do concrete block. In Texas, they only wanted stucco over concrete block.
I always thought of myself as an architect who believed in what I was doing. After all these years, people have told me I was also a great salesman. Another problem is that schools have not prepared architects for the real world. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve employed who’ve asked, “Why don’t they teach this in school?” I’ve always appreciated USC for my education in architecture. Even though they were criticized about it at the time, they stressed presentation.
What is your opinion of today’s homebuilders and their designs?
Contemporary design has also abdicated its leading role. They allowed what we used to call Cinderella houses to come into favor. The great push forward of my houses and the Case Study houses got overrun by some cute little houses. It’s amazing to me that the style of today is so far behind what they were in the ‘50s. They can’t even design a decent floor plan. The exteriors are awful. They’ve gotten bigger and bigger and uglier and uglier.
Is it true that a builder is re-creating your houses?
A large builder from Canada, Max Livingstone, rented one of my houses for his family in Palm Springs. They came to the conclusion that this was a pretty clever house. Then they started looking at Palm Springs and saw more of my houses and wondered why what was being built today was so bad. They thought it was time for my house to come back. They contacted me and we made a deal where I licensed them to build my houses. I helped bring the house up to present codes. And we built the first model house. They wanted to build a tract but the land costs were too high. On the first day, they had an offer to buy the model at full price. They sold it, and then they sold four more. We’ve built a total of six so far, even in this economy when no one is building anything new. The designs are based on my Alexander houses. They originally wanted to prefab it, but the cost of shipping was too high.
Do you think prefab is the future of housing?
I don’t think prefab will ever be [that], because I think components can be prefab but I don’t think complete prefab houses make sense, and they can’t compete with stick-built houses. You can’t get the variety of models and you can’t build a tract of all one component. They look like container boxes with holes built into them for windows. I don’t consider Ray Kappe’s new (LivingHomes) prefab but custom houses. I think the future for tract housing is prefab components. You can come out with prefab variations on kitchens and baths that will allow you enough flexibility in floor plans and exterior designs so it won’t look like it’s a prefab house.
What else can architects do to cope in this economy?
I think it’s the period when architects should do exploration. If I were young, I’d be doing components and designing hypothetical tracts to take to builders meetings and sell my wares. When everything is moving very quickly, most people don’t want to be innovative. They just do what they’re doing with the same twist.
Can you tell us about your new movie?
It’s an 88-minute documentary. PBS will air it. I’ve seen the rough cut and I’m very pleased with it. Sixteen people were interviewed in the film, mixed in with pictures of my work. Jake Gorst is the filmmaker. His grandfather was an architect. He is extremely interested in architecture.